Congress finally passes WRDA

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Last week both the House and Senate overturned a presidential veto on the Water Resources and Development Act (WRDA), setting in motion for the first time in seven years authorization for updating the Upper Mississippi and IllinoisRivers.

Thursday the Senate voted 79-14 to override the President's veto of WRDA. Late Tuesday, the House of Representatives voted 361-54 to override the President's veto.

"After almost two decades of work by corn growers, millions of dollars spent on studies, seven years of waiting on the legislative process, a presidential veto and then a veto override by the U.S. Congress, we finally have achieved authorization to modernize seven locks on the Upper Mississippi River System," said National Corn Growers Association President Ron Litterer.

The water resources development legislation includes authorization to spend $3.6 billion to construct seven new 1,200-foot locks at locks 20, 21, 22, 24 and 25 on the Upper Mississippi River, as well as at the LaGrange and Peoria locks on the Illinois Waterway. It also would authorize switchboats to expedite barge movements at Locks 20 through 24. The funds also would be used for ecosystem restoration on the Upper Mississippi-Illinois Waterway.

The legislation authorizes the Army Corp of Engineers to undertake water infrastructure improvement projects across the U.S. The proposed projects range from flood control and dam safety initiatives to storm damage reduction and environmental restoration efforts. 

The total price tag exceeds $21 billion. The final number nearly doubled after the House-Senate conference, the major reason why President Bush vetoed the bill.

Staying competitive

Agricultural groups argued the updates are critical in keeping U.S. agriculture competitive in the global marketplace.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he's seen the investment that Brazil is putting into its infrastructure on the Amazon River. "We're learning that unless we update the infrastructure on our own rivers, we're going to see higher and higher input costs and fewer and fewer markets for our commodities," he said.

Approximately one-third of U.S. agricultural production is exported, and 60% of those exports — including more than 2.5 billion bushels of corn and soybeans — typically transit the UpperMississippi-IllinoisRiver system each year. Barges also transport significant quantities of fertilizer and other agricultural farm input supplies to grain-growing regions.

A study released last week by the University of Missouri assessed the impact of the failure of either of two locks: Lock 25, just north of St. Louis, on the Mississippi River or the LaGrange Lock on the Illinois River. A 90-day lock failure from October through December of 2005 on either river would have had a $219 million to $585 million impact on corn and soybean producers alone, depending on rail rate behavior, the study indicates. These figures are based on no rail rate increase at the low end of losses to a 25% increase in rail rates at the high end.

More than 60 million tons of goods valued at more than $29 billion crossed these locks in 2005, said Seth Meyer, agricultural economist at the MU Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute. Barges provide a lower cost mode of transportation for a wide range of commodities. Shipping the same 2005 commodity volumes to the same destinations would cost an additional $580 million by rail and $1.6 billion by truck, according to figures in the study.

Battle not over

Getting the authorization has been no easy task, but agricultural groups recognize funds still need to go through the yearly appropriations process.

Overturning the president's veto is just a "permission slip" to seek funding through the annual appropriations process, a statement from NCGA said. For several years, ag groups have worked to secure pre-construction dollars for the Upper Mississippi River System projects, but the real work now begins with a full-court press to obtain construction dollars through the annual appropriations process, Litterer said.

The National Grain and Feed Association added the appropriations process "provides lawmakers and the Administration with ample opportunity to set specific waterway project priorities and discern which ones merit federal funding."

The NGFA also noted that current law requires that 50% of the cost of waterway projects be funded by 20-cent-per-gallon fuel taxes levied on commercial barge users, including the grain, feed and fertilizer sectors. The NGFA said that while commercial users operating on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Waterway have paid more than 40% of total barge fuel taxes, they have received less than 15% of the benefits through investments in infrastructure improvements.

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